Sidmothian John reflects on Napoli grounding off Branscombe

John Govier with a memento of the Napoli wreckage

John Govier with a memento of the Napoli wreckage - Credit: Archant

Remember this date – Saturday, January, 20, 2007 - because I always will.

Scenes from the Napoli. Credit: MCA

Scenes from the Napoli. Credit: MCA - Credit: Archant

That morning, I looked out to sea and saw a very large ship being towed by two ocean-going tugs; they were being towed up-channel towards Portland and were then about four or five miles out to sea off Sidmouth.

I guessed what it might be.

One of the world’s biggest container ships had been in trouble in the past few days in the English Channel and had been on the news - this container was the MSC Napoli, and reports were that it was fully loaded and might break into two, and that all crew had been taken off.

It was 900ft long and loaded with 2,323 containers.

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I was to learn later that day, on that very afternoon of January 20, it was deliberately grounded about 800 yards from the shore at Littlecombe Shoot.

This very soon became national and worldwide news – in fact, I first heard through a phone call from my son in Singapore, who had seen it on the news there!

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We were in the middle of a series of severe gales – the seas had been very rough and stormy for several days and there was another south-westerly storm forecast for that night – which arrived as predicted with all its force.

Many containers were washed off the decks of the Napoli, some washed into Branscombe beach, and some never to be seen again as they were washed away in the sea.

And that is when the fun started.

‘Whiskey Galore’ had nothing on what was about to happen in quiet old Branscombe.

Treasure hunters arrived from all over the country, and indeed the continent.

This was to become one of the biggest shipwreck treasure bonanzas of all time.

By the Sunday night, people and traffic had blocked the roads in Branscombe as the treasure hunters came and helped themselves to their bounty, and more and more arrived as the news travelled over the next few days.

Brand new motorbikes were ridden up the beach, beautiful wooden barrels and other treasures were snapped up.

A local fisherman from Branscombe became a national celebrity with his tractor on the beach.

And more and more flocked to the beach.

At this point it was starting to get out of hand.

The receiver of wrecks arrived at the beach and didn’t know what to make of it – who owned what, at that time, was very unclear.

People were given 28 days to register what they had taken.

We didn’t know at the time that this was to become one of the most expensive shipwrecks of all time.

It was clearly visible from Sidmouth and completely overwhelmed quiet and beautiful Branscombe and Beer.

There will, I am sure, be many stories that the locals in Beer and Branscombe can tell of the treasure hunters and their finds.

Sidmouth became a hot-spot for journalists.

I was approached by a journalist from France with two colleagues asking the best place to see the wreck; I sent them to the late Graham Williams at the Fountain Head pub for help.

I later found out from Graham that they stayed three weeks.

They found the best view of the Napoli from the top of the cliffs at Littlecombe Shoot and enjoyed the best food in England in the process.

I and many Sidmouth Herald readers would love to know some of the stories that could be told in Branscombe and Beer.

But I have only told you about the first few days of the fated Napoli grounding in one of the most scenic and beautiful parts of the Jurassic coast.

Did someone make a monumental mistake in grounding the Napoli?

Could it have been avoided?

No-one knew then how long the salvage operation would take and its demise, that would not be known for another two-and-a-half years and millions of pounds it would cost to salvage.

Rumours were flying around – was there any valuable cargo in some of the containers still on the Napoli? We will never know!

Very soon, cleaning up and salvage work started.

As much oil from the engines was pumped out as could be, floating cranes and floating platforms arrived, and work started on unloading the containers that were on the container ship.

These were towed to Portland and unloaded there and all this took five months.

Boats were running sightseeing trips around the wreck that summer, and it was common to see helicopters and planes around the wreck.

Things were getting a little bit back to normal in Branscombe and Beer, but the wreck had become a tourist attraction.

So, with the Napoli now empty, an attempt to pull it apart with tugs was made.

This failed, and later on an exclusion zone of 1,000 yards was set up and a new attempt was made to split the vessel behind the wheelhouse with explosives.

This worked, and the Napoli was in two pieces.

The front section was towed to Belfast, and the heavy wheelhouse and engine section remained.

It was decided to break this up in situ. This was done and taken away until the time the divers were satisfied that nothing remained.

Trinity House removed all exclusion buoys on July 29, 2009.

This enormous salvage operation had taken just over two-and-a-half years to complete.

It is estimated the total cost was £120million.

The Napoli insurance was capped at £15million.

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